Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Experience of Beauty

In Monroe C. Beardsley's Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism he describes aesthetic objects as "perceptual objects". He proposes, as he calls it, "a form of phenomenalism", i.e. that
critical statements about artworks might be translatable into statements about their presentations, i.e., their appearances to particular persons at particular times [op. cit. p. xxiv]
In a counter to this, Bruce Morton in a paper titled "Beardsley's Conception of the Aesthetic Object" apparently showed that this cannot actually be carried out. But I think that we might productively revisit a somewhat different version of this question. I say this because of a debate that began in the comment section yesterday.

[Note: There is a useful discussion of the question of phenomenal objectivity in the Beardsley volume starting on p. 34. It seems clear that we can logically distinguish between those aspects of the aesthetic object that cause us to experience beauty and the experience itself.]

This debate took place in the comments to the last of three posts I put up examining in some detail an interesting essay by the great Scots philosopher David Hume titled: "Of the Standard of Taste". I encourage you to go read those three posts, even though they do go on:

One of the things that Hume says is this:
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.
I elaborated on this in a later comment:
I think that it is the case that certain kinds of things in the world can cause us to perceive beauty. That is, beauty is something that is perceived, given certain sorts of stimulus. It is the reception of the stimulus rather than the origin or ground of the stimulus that is the moment of beauty. The sunset is beautiful IF there is a human being sitting in the right spot to see it with his eyes open and awake. Otherwise it is just a bunch of light and reflections, maybe some clouds. A piece of music can be beautiful if it is performed well and there are people there to hear it. The moment of performance and hearing is the moment of beauty. The printed notes on the page are not "beauty". This is how I think it works.
To which my interlocutor replied:
I think I would argue, without having the sources and authorities immediately at my fingertips, that the sunset is beautiful in itself and perceptible ('beautiful-in-itself-and-perceptible')-- although we can intellectually distinguish the beautiful thing/event from its perceptibility-- to any who look toward it willing to see, to perceive. That sunset that is happening now is beautiful whether one or one thousand pairs of eyes are following it, or none. Put in another way, this the problem of the tree falling in the woods: I think the ancients (although not all the ancients), and people up until perhaps what some call the early modern age would say, yes, of course the tree falling makes a sound. Modern people say, no, if there is nobody to hear, there's no sound.
The beautiful, I would go on to say, contrary to what looks to be your position, shares, by its nature, in the transcendental attributes of being in a way that is perceptible to the senses and intellect. 'It is the reception of the stimulus rather than the ground that is the moment of beauty'-- I think the 'reception of the stimulus' is, oh I don't know how to describe this, an epiphenomenon that is consequent (not so much in time but as an intellectual concept) to the beautiful object/event.
And I answered:
 I think that this discussion is one of the truly important ones. Certainly I have only thought about it in a fairly superficial way. But, just to take up one thread, I think that the "sound of the tree falling in the forest" as opposed to my sunset example, is a very indicative one. Yes, I would argue that the tree falling in the forest certainly makes a sound even if there is no-one there to hear it. We could find a tree about to fall and set up a recorder nearby to record the sound when it falls. Or, if it were a large tree, we might go back later and take note of the physical damage, effect on nearby trees and bushes and estimate the sound it made much as scientists have estimated the magnitude of earthquakes long after the fact from physical evidence. BUT, and here is where the rubber meets the road, I would argue that Beauty, while certainly objectively existent, is not of the same order of being as, say, the sound of a tree falling. Beauty is something that can only be experienced by a human being, much like the Good and the True. We can't make a recording of Beauty any more than we can of the Good or the True. Now, let me hasten to say, it seems as if we can. We can record a fine musical performance and, upon listening to it later, experience the beauty of it. But I still want to say that the Beauty is in the experience, not in all those little zeros and ones on the CD. What the recording does is freeze the efficient causes of Beauty so that they can be imbibed at a later date.
Hume accounts for the variation in judgement of things like beauty by the natural variation in individual persons in the operation of things like prejudice, distraction, greater or lesser "delicacy of taste" which we would probably describe as acuity of perception and observation and so on. But he grounds the possibility of objective aesthetic judgement in the aesthetic object itself and in the general uniformity of the organs of perception. I am giving a very bald summary; I strongly suggest reading all of Hume's essay, and, if you have time, my commentary.

Let me add just one caveat: discussions of aesthetics like this usually have the underlying, unstated assumption that we are talking about fine art contemplated in ideal surroundings: standing in front of a late Goya at the Prado or listening to the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein Golden Hall in Vienna. But a great deal, a great deal, of music is quite different from this and that should be taken into account. Music is often context-oriented: if you are 18 and out on a Friday night, you want to be hearing hip-hop or EDM in a club with a lot of flashing lights. Disinterested aesthetic contemplation ain't in it! Similarly, jazz is ideally experienced in a club setting, though without the flashing lights and with suitable beverages. A lot of music has more of a social function than an aesthetic function. Mind you, I have a lot of fun sometimes doing an aesthetic valuation of a piece of music obviously not intended for such. But, as I say, that is just for fun.

Speaking of the Vienna Phillies, let's listen to them for our envoi today. Here is a piece by a composer I don't think I have ever mentioned here: Richard Strauss. His Alpine Symphony is conducted by Bernard Haitink:

No comments: